BY VIC BEDOIAN
Kings Canyon National Park is moving forward with a plan to reestablish giant sequoia seedlings in groves that were devastated in the massive wildfires of 2020 and 2021. Park scientists estimate that 7,500–10,600 monarchs burned in those blazes.
The National Park Service says some groves burned so intensely that regeneration is not possible without human intervention. Seedlings grown in greenhouses are being planted in two groves in the coming months before winter sets in.
Three major wildfires in recent years caused unprecedented damage to the giant sequoia ecosystem in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National parks, along with the surrounding national forest and tribal lands. Now, the National Park Service is planting seedlings in hopes of restoring two of the most severely burned groves.
Park officials say the goal of this extraordinary effort is to point these groves toward a recovery that would have occurred naturally had they not experienced human-caused severe fire effects in recent years. It is a stunning acknowledgment from a government agency that fossil-fueled global warming is what drove the infernos that incinerated up to 20% of the world’s giant sequoias.
Clay Jordan, park superintendent, explains why the project is so critical: “The fire burned at very high intensity and at unprecedented levels. And so, when you have large expanses of high mortality, then the concern is that there’s insufficient regeneration that will occur naturally to replenish those trees, just because so many trees were lost.”
Dr. Christy Brigham, the park’s chief of science and resources, described the vast burned areas with no living trees in a post-mortem following the KNP Complex fire, “The nature of wildfire in the Sierra has changed, and this new wildfire is an incredible threat to the persistence of these giant sequoias, these thousand-year-old trees that we love so much.”
If there are no trees, she mused, where will the seeds for new trees come from?
Jordan confirms that park officials are relying on field survey data gathered in the burned sequoia groves over the past two years. And, he says they will plant seedlings where the best available science indicates that insufficient regeneration of trees would take place on its own.
“We had 22 groves that burned in the Castle fire in 2020,” says Jordan, “and in the KNP Complex the next year in 2021. Of those 22 groves, six groves burned at very high intensity.
“So, what we have been doing last year and this year is having survey teams in there to measure the amount of natural regeneration that has taken place to help us determine whether we need to replant in those groves.”
After surveying the extensive damage, the park service drafted an environmental assessment and took in thousands of public comments to figure out the best way to preserve sequoias and endangered Pacific fisher habitat.
Crews will now begin planting giant sequoia and other mixed conifer seeds in the site-specific locations they have determined across 1,200 acres of previously forested areas and in an adjacent wildlife corridor. They are focusing first on the severely burned Board Camp and Redwood Mountain groves.
Jordan says that reestablishing those groves will be challenging. “The reality with giant sequoias is it takes a lot of seed, and it takes a lot of seedlings, incredible densities of seedlings, in order to regenerate and to grow mature giant sequoias that take hundreds of years to mature.
“The mortality of seedlings in the first couple of dozen years of a giant sequoia is very significant; very few end up surviving. So, we know we need a high density of them.”
Park scientists are looking at burned areas throughout the forest to see if natural regeneration is occurring, and several other groves are currently being evaluated to determine their suitability for replanting. A major concern is that large areas of barren, scorched ground will not come back as forest but rather as a shrub-type plant community that is fire-prone.
So, in addition to restoring giant sequoia groves, park officials emphasize their desire to avoid conversion of these expanses such that they could threaten surrounding forests with even more frequent high severity fires. Especially in a warming world.